25-under-25: Tyler Herro is blowing-up expectations

25-under-25, Miami Heat

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Any honest evaluation of Tyler Herro requires looking at his production compared to expectations, but also how much he’s actually developed.

Most NBA players under 25 are somewhat difficult to project and build safe expectations around. Tyler Herro is a perfect example of the complications that come with projecting the talent of young players.

Part of the story is the fact that Herro exceed expectations early on and moved the goalposts. Though his progression has still been upward, it hasn’t been as rapid as some fans expected or hoped.

With three years in the books, Herro has had a great start on paper. He made the All-Rookie team in his debut season and earned the Sixth Man of the Year award last year. He dazzled in the bubble playoffs of 2020, averaging nearly 20 points per game in the team’s Eastern Conference Finals win over the Boston Celtics, including a 37-point performance in Game 4. That early coming out party has perhaps unfairly tilted the scale of expectations toward unreasonableness for Herro.

As a rookie, Herro was looked down on for physical and athletic limitations. His short wingspan holds him back as a defender regardless of how much effort he exerts, and as great as he’s been on the offensive end, he has struggled to become even an average defender. Any expectations for his game need to be placed on that backdrop because it will limit not only his actual performance but also his confidence and playing time as long as he’s with the Miami Heat who have a culture of strong defense. Miami has been top-10 in opponent points allowed in all but one of the last 13 seasons.

The lone standout season where Miami wasn’t top 10 in points allowed? Herro’s breakout year. As things have normalized for the Heat’s culture, Herro has seemed to come back to earth. But has he? Herro’s performance, quite honestly, has been incredibly linear for such a young player. It’s merely the perception of his performance that feels like it has missed expectations and risen and fallen.

Herro was so good in his rookie season that he has quite quickly become the comparison scapegoat — at least until he is traded or receives a contract extension — for the Heat, who have often been in the running to trade for the league’s biggest stars. This summer they were involved in discussions for both Kevin Durant and Donovan Mitchell, neither of which materialized for Miami. Herro is the logical outgoing piece in such a deal, especially since he has yet to receive a contract extension which would make dealing him much more difficult in regards to the salary cap.

Fans of competitive teams rarely have the patience to temper expectations for players who perform competently, especially with young players. For proven vets, these fans expect stable play at the least. For growing young players, they expect dramatic leaps ahead in forthcoming years. That fan-based expectation is metastasized when you’re the trade piece thrown out in deals for Durant. Suddenly, the perceived opportunity cost of rostering you is equal to one of the league’s top-five players, fair or not.

Tyler Herro has to be compared to expectations and to himself

An examination of the reality of Herro’s career is necessary to understand and appreciate just how good he’s been, and why Miami might want to hold onto him for longer rather than continuing to dangle him in star trade opportunities.

Consider Herro’s projected wins above replacement from FiveThirtyEight compared to his actual WAR:

After a stellar rookie season, his WAR projection jumped dramatically to nearly 4. For context, Ja Morant was projected at 3.4  last year.

In fact, a comparison of projections of projected WAR against Ja Morant — drafted in the same year — helps paint the picture of how beating first-year expectations can make expectations in future years unrealistically high.

As the expectations rise and fall for Herro vs a smooth progression of expectations for Morant in the first three years, we get the impression that Herro’s play itself is up-and-down. That’s not the case, though.

Let’s go back to the first graph but remove the expectation line and only display the actual WAR for Herro:

He’s on an upward trend and has been his whole career. In a sport that has a pervasive sophomore slump, it’s impressive that Herro has been able to not only improve but improve consistently, especially relative to his peers.

No player exists on an island, so it’s fair to look at Herro’s performance on the court in context. Criticizing his playoff performances last year is reasonable given that he’s on a competitive team. And in fairness, FiveThirtyEight’s seasonal projections are quantitative, not qualitative.

But in the public discourse, those expectations get pushed and pulled by the forces of the off-court drama like trade speculation and rumors, which isn’t exactly fair.

The list of possible comparisons for Herro are endless. You could compare him to his in-house fellow wingman, Duncan Robinson. You could compare him to his draftmates, as I have above. You could compare him to the players he’s been tabled within trade discussions like Kevin Durant.

I would suggest, though, that the best way to enjoy Tyler Herro is to appreciate his game, the consistency of what he brings to the table, and the capability he’s performed the role of sixth man with. He may not jump to an All-Star level of play next year, but he should improve, and for once, can’t we be content with a player who commits to getting better every year?

This year, Herro is likely to either be traded near the deadline or receive a contract extension from the Heat. While it’s tempting to add an immediate upgrade in return for Herro, Miami would be wise to recognize what they have: A consistently-improving young guard.

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